poverty vs simplicity.

I’ve been reading Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria, Jr.  It’s pretty intense, and reviews by whites tend to reflect two concepts that I find disturbing: 1. Oh, now I “get” Indians and 2. This book is horrible and racist!  I’m white and I’m not like that!  I find the first sentiment disturbing because it shows how damn ignorant the country is on tribal law, broken treaties, and past assimilation programs.  I find the second sentiment disturbing because it not only views Indians versus non-Indians as a racial vis-à-vis rather than sovereign nations with enormous cultural disparities (a central point being made by most of these texts), but it shows resentment before assent to past wrong-doings (which were clearly racially and religiously motivated).  As a result, you get an audience that willing to be enlightened and which consequently becomes divided by those who resent the sovereign separation – but also those who pity.

And that brings me to today’s topic: Pity.  White, Christian society has – as a generalization – repeatedly pitied minorities (once, of course, it got over taking advantage of them).  For example, so many mission trips head off to Africa within 150 years of African slavery in this country and within 50 years of Civil Rights oppression.  These societies didn’t care then, but suddenly they do?  Is it the new, generational upbringings that have helped conquer past racism?  No, I don’t think it is.  I think it is continued egocentrism, a continued effort to inflict one society’s views on another.  And just like people today will look at African countries and pity the poor, impoverished people without any hope, they will read about American Indians and just feel bad – but never do anything that could sacrifice any of their royalties.

Okay – now you’re probably saying, Well people do sacrifice for mission trips!  You say this because they take time and money to go overseas to live in those icky conditions for just some time.  But this is just my point.  Poverty vs. simplicity.  And while I don’t speak for every person in every community in every impoverished area of the world, I can speak from at least my observations in West and Central Africa, places where mission trips and Engineers Without Borders visit on an essentially permanent basis.  I have, in French, conversed for several weeks among people in both rural and urban situations about the poverty.  I’ve asked them what they think of America, of this lifestyle that these do-gooders wish to impose on the “impoverished”.  They’ve told me that America sounds fascinating, but NO I would never leave here for that.  Roukia, a cook in Ouidah, Benin who cleans in her spare time and recently opened her own restaurant – she told me the poverty is bad, people live badly in Africa.  But she also told me that America is not the answer.  People get by, but it’s confusing when the American lifestyle butts up against them.  A man named Tomas and his friends, some committee people in the tiny rural Cameroonian village Batoula-Bafounda, sat around a table drinking palm wine with me, laughing because we Americans refused to stay in their village after the well implementation was complete.  “Why go home??  We have EVERYTHING you need here!  So many bananas, avocados, and palm wine!  No, it’s not the American lifestyle, it’s the SIMPLE LIFE.”  I can’t tell you how many times I heard people tell me this was the SIMPLE LIFE, the BETTER LIFE.

And so I ask, what are these trips accomplishing?  What is this pity about?  Why do people think this American, white, Christian lifestyle – this modernity – is the solution?  When it’s the same answer to why the world is collapsing?  Why are people convinced they have the solutions and that everyone else wants to live like them in this luxurious way?  I think, to many “impoverished” people, this luxurious way is excessive, unnecessary, and severely lacking happiness.  They see it as stress and competition, not family and laughter and tradition.  These people who think otherwise come into villages (kind of like we did with EWB) and they implement systems that, quite frankly, fail immediately thereafter.  (Google it if you don’t believe me; I’ve also written about this failure before.)  Why do they fail?  Because the people don’t care for them.  Why?  Because they fall back into routine, a routine that doesn’t have these luxuries at all.  They choose tradition.

Thus back to this book, back to what I’ve written about so much lately.  Tradition.  This is the same problem we face in America with the failing efforts by the federal government to “fix” reservations.  They’re imposing their beliefs, their ways of living, their solutions.  What is the answer?  Learn, ask, respect – but let be.  Respect treaties and promises.  Respect each other.  Is that really so hard to do?  Sometimes doing is like talking; if you really want to help, sometimes you’re better off not saying anything at all.

the land looks after us.

“The Earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the Earth.” – Chief Seattle, 1854.

I’ve often thought about this quote and about property ownership.  Territorial protection is something I can understand, but actually writing up deeds and claiming titles and values to land?  That doesn’t make sense to me.  It seems to contradict Chief Seattle’s notion, and I feel like I cannot be alone in my sentiments.  I used to work evenings in downtown Cleveland drawing property plats for surveyors in Florida, thinking A.) how dull these suburban plans are (they’re all the same, they’re all monotonous) and B.) land ownership just leads to conflict (the plats were for checking violations).

Even territorial protection of this land before settlers arrived caused conflict, but of a different nature.  Back then, most conflicts probably occurred over ancestral lands held by peoples of differing religious views or practices, or because of fishing or hunting rights, or maybe access to water, or even to obtain terrain with a particularly protective characteristic which sheltered people and resources from the weather or gave military advantage in defending a village.  Essentially every conflict, in other words, was borne of a strong connection to the land and its resources.

Land ownership today doesn’t strike me as the same thing.  Most of the disputes I was working to resolve were about fences being put as much as a fraction of an inch across a property line, or maybe violations of easements for utilities and other public services.  As with the Gold Rushes that displaced countless natives over a century before, shale and oil industries snatch up property rights and extract billions in profit at stressful rates.  Even the agricultural industry – probably the only remaining significant connection to the land that could be in any way respectful in this country – is, in my mind, becoming completely corrupt.  GMOs are replacing native crops so that food hardly resembles food anymore, corn and soy are being grown in enormous quantities to feed humans, livestock, and also to provide as fillers in nearly everything we eat, and industrial techniques are destroying the integrity of the earth.  Nearly all of this country’s topsoil has already washed out the delta of the Mississippi River.  What’s to blame?  Well, for a large part the industrialization of the farm.  Mono-crops are also to blame, a theory supported wildly by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (which studies what makes a prairie thrive in its natural environment, etc.).  Also, tilling techniques (before farmers tilled to contours) adds to the erosion, and chemical additives do incomprehensible damage to nitrogen-fixation levels, biodiversity, organism nervous systems, etc. etc. etc…  The farming, harvesting, and gathering practices of the last thousands of years have fallen on deaf ears who think their short-term high yielding crops, animal domestication, and “sophisticated” techniques are the answers to our successes.

But we can’t succeed if we ruin the land.  Why are people forgetting this?

As Chief Seattle said, the land dictates everything we do.  It decides if we live or die.  How has society become so far removed from reality that it has forgotten that?

I just finished reading a book today called The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion by Joel W. Martin.  It brushed on relevant historical events and jumped around a lot between a huge number of nations, predominantly those in the continental states.  It stressed how, while all the native cultures vary sometimes greatly, they all share the commonsense that the land gives everything they have.  In fact, nearly all Creation stories in North America personify the earth as a mother out of which the first humans rose.  The book continues to modern times, listing numerous ancestral sites of religious significance that are being defiled by tourists, such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  I know I’ve been disturbed in the past by ancient sites and exotic islands being over-run and destroyed by tourism (hello, our native Hawai’ian friends!), but I’ve begun seeing it in different ways – as lifestyle errors.  For example, my native Alaskan friends impress me with their heritage.  Their peoples were some serious survivors out there on the tundra.  Yet they completely honored the land and had resources for as long as they needed and took no more than that.  While traveling in Alaska during the winter of 2012 for AISES Nationals, I was disheartened to see how drastic the contrast was between the host cultures we were exposed to at Conference and the heat-blasting, oil-thirsty, Commodity Central Anchorage that I was experiencing.  This is NOT how these people lived!  And while I loved the outdoor enthusiasm Alaskans have, I still felt hurt by the energy consumption (and Alaska does consume more than it produces, despite its excellent wind energy categorization).

In my mind, I’ve kept a tally of disturbing facts.  For example, my mom did some volunteer work for children at charter schools in Pittsburgh.  I remember going with her once.  She dressed in black and hid in the bathroom while the children filed in to an auditorium. Then, she put on a cape, black triangular ears, and painted her face black.  She slipped into the auditorium while the lights were off and a woman got on stage: “I think we have a visitor!  Who do you see?”  She then ran around the room, jumping over children.  They laughed and tried touching her, shouting “Bat!  Bat!  Bat!”  She then broke into this limerick (that I was sick of hearing at the time) telling children how bats are the only mammals that fly and that they shouldn’t be afraid of them.  This was just one example of the work she does, but the program she was volunteering with has to work in a constant effort to dispel myths city children have about wildlife.  Even the parents can be incredibly ignorant.  (On a bioforray, I watched a woman peer into a pen of flying squirrels and go, “But, wait…Where are their wings??”)

When I moved to Cleveland, I realized the severity of the situation.  Children, adults, people of all ages and education – they do not understand wildlife.  Like, at all.  AT.  ALL.  Sometimes they can’t tell a squirrel from a chipmunk.  They’re shocked by the sight of a goldfinch if they leave their city of drab urban birds.  They’ll cry about guns and hunting rights while ordering a burger from McDonald’s, then plead that I don’t remind them it is animal muscle they’re consuming.  I’ve talked to children who were dumbfounded that their food grows, apparently never having seen food that doesn’t come out of a can or out of a produce bin.  Maybe Adam and Even taught them that apples come from trees, but I could list a number of vegetables and they’d have no idea how they come to be.  I’ve actually heard some kids suggest some produce is made in a factory, like Twinkies.

And it’s not just things that grow; it’s home cooked meals, too.  I know so many adults now who never realized what “cooking from scratch” means.  I remember making a chocolate beet cake and people being flabbergasted.  Why?  Here’s what they thought I did: Bought it in the store.  Oh, you made it?  Okay, from a box – but why’s it called “beet”?  THERE ARE BEETS IN HERE?  Here’s how I actually made it: I’ve milled my own flour, but usually I just use a bag.  Yes, I add all of the little ingredients like baking soda and baking powder and real vanilla extract.  No, I whipped my icing by hand with cream cheese and powdered sugar.  Yes, I did use real beets; no, they weren’t canned; yesbeets do grow and I got them at the farmer’s market because they’re in season.

So not only are children unexposed and therefore fearful and disrespecting of the animals around them, they don’t understand where their food comes from.  Their parents don’t cook them real meals, they probably don’t sit down together and have a TV-free conversation, and they are most likely filling up on junk.  Its this ignorance that I see at the forefront of land disrespect.  Who is going to care about the land if they don’t realize they need it for their food, the animals, and for the ecosystem to keep the world turning?  And without the strength of a family unit, values and morals and other virtues get lost in the chaos of our egocentric society.

And that egocentric society scoffs at the natives who still hold the land of the highest value, who love and respect and prefer their culture so much that they’ll face the hardships of Reservation life to not leave.  It’s the boastfulness that the modern way is “right” that leaves all of the sensible people feeling hopeless as they scramble to fix problems others are creating out of neglect, like me at my environmental engineering job or my mom in her children’s education program.  Or like both of us at Wildlife Works, Inc. when we volunteer to feed raptors and other creatures that have been injured or abandoned as a side effect of humanity’s infringement on their natural lives and habitats.

Me, I can’t see myself without the land.  It’s beyond impossible.  Even if I could live in a sterile white building and eat endless, manufactured food at no cost, I would run away and risk starving as a hunter-gatherer.  It’s not just about the nutritional value of natural, organic food, it’s in part about doing it myself.  About maintaining control and knowledge over how to survive.  About remembering I belong to the earth and not the other way around, so I can’t have the final say in anything.  I just have to be prepared.  But I’m not upset about it, either, because it’s the reason why I ever came to be.  So I love the land.  I especially love Appalachia, where I have lived my whole life.  Whether in the mountains or cornfield, or even now along the Great Lakes, I couldn’t imagine life without being in the outdoors.  Without gardening.  Without going out of my way to make the best choices I can for the planet every time I have a choice to make.  I get too anxious locked indoors or too far away from the mountains for too long.  I have to climb to a peak or to the top of a tree and just feel like I can see, to remind myself that the world is still here.  At least for a little.

And maybe I’m weird, but I think Twinkies are disgusting.  Modern fruit is too sweet and too pulpy.  Vegetables on the other hand…  I can’t imagine not eating a huge bowl of vegetables, rice, and beans every once in awhile…with a nice cup of tea.

4 Reasons Why Overseas Volunteer Projects are a Waste of Time

indian-reservation-squalor-shanty-hut-hovels-poor-poverty1-1

Shanties on a US reservation, no better than houses I’ve seen in rural India or West Africa and unfathomably worse than donated facilities at the Nuevo Paraiso mission project in Honduras.

It seems like, growing up, the cool thing for kids to do who went to my fancy private school was to be sent off by their parents on some overseas volunteer project in a third-world country.  I never did anything like this until college, mostly because my mom always shot the idea down.  I never fully understood her reasons until I went on a trip of my own and began reevaluating such overseas volunteer projects.  I decided that I agree with my mom.  The only people these trips really benefit are the travelers themselves, giving them something to put on their resumes.  And although the benefits operate on a case-by-case basis, it is my experience and observations that suggest how these projects are often just a waste of time.  I will outline my reasons below:

1. GIVING OUT FISH.
My family strongly believes in the motto: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man how to fish, he eats for life.”  I’ve grown up knowing that expression and beginning to see the truth behind it.  Although my parents use that approach in their political views and anti-welfare standpoints, I see how this fish comparison directly relates to volunteer projects.  It’s easy to give a monetary donation and let someone else handle what happens to the money.  That’s obviously no way to help an impoverished community.  But too often we are still transfixed on materialistic things to improve an entire village.  Why save up money to go build a building?  Most of these communities have all the resources they need to build a building that suits their needs.  Why not lend a physical hand instead?  Why not teach and do less of handing these people supplies and new, shiny things?  Give them all of these donations and the only thing they’ll think is “Wow, Americans have nice, fancy things.  When I grow up, I want to get out of here and go somewhere where these things can be handed to me.”  Not only does handing out fish not allow these people to fix themselves, it encourages them to seek out where they can be handed more fish and prevents them from fixing their old mistakes.  Indirectly, it could also cause communities to disband and lose culture as the younger generations with more potential greedily seek out a life outside of their community for shiny things they don’t need.  And I’m not just making up a hypothesis; it is a serious issue I learned about while on some community projects this summer in rural India.

2. BROKEN THINGS THAT STAY BROKEN.
When I signed up for Engineers Without Borders, I though, Gee, this is cool – I get funded to travel to a really unique place and practice both my French and engineering skills!  The experience helped land me a job and gave me some real world perspective on what life is like in West Africa.  But my trip to Cameroon benefitted myself more than it did the community.  We spent endless weeks organizing, building, delivering, preparing, teaching,…all to end up with empty wallets and a failed system.  We visited a nearby project similar to ours: a solar panel-powered well system installed by the University of Delaware.  What did we find?  An empty water tank at the top of a hill next to a school.  Why was there no water pumping up here?  We found the lower pump where a few kids were squeezing out the only drops they could get.  Why was there not even water at the taps with the greatest hydraulic head?  My colleague found the answer: the solar panels were coated in weeks worth of red, Cameroonian mountain dust.  No one had been cleaning the panels, despite clear instruction from the volunteers to do so.  Back at our own project, we even set up a committee dedicated to clean the panels once a week.  You would think that a quick cleanse isn’t much to ask from a slower paced, rural community, but even our village had to provide an incentive by offering weekly pay to the volunteer.  When I returned to the States and shared my story with my friends, my best friend gave me a link to a video that discussed exactly how EWB projects are inevitable failures.  There is no water coming out a year later.  All of this money and time, and for what?  Why is this happening?  The answer is multi-faceted, having its roots in my fish theory.  Plus, things that break in these rural communities often stay broken.  Why?  Well, what resources are there to fix them?  To fix these projects that are not the standard way of life?  What motive is there to gather the information and to find a way to bring back something that these villages have survived for thousands of years without?  And that brings me to my third point…

3. DON’T FIX WHAT’S NOT BROKEN.
Why are Americans so in love with themselves that they think their way of life is the solution to the planet’s suffering?  The wasteful, materialistic American way of life is not only greedy and corrupt, but it could easily be contributing indirectly to the suffering of these remote areas.  The environmental impacts of our decisions in the States causes a global reaction that can directly impact the weather conditions and water cycles of these victimized areas.  Still, they thrive the way they have known to thrive for thousands of years.  Throughout history, ancient civilizations have survived and thrived without the assistance of outsiders.  In fact, if anything, these outsiders have obliterated these civilizations before ever significantly impacting them in a positive fashion.  For example, think about the situations in America.  All of the tribal peoples who have lost their identity and land.  All because we think the way we live is the right way?  The sophisticated way?  Go to West Africa and you will see a collage of old and new.  People living in huts who have cell phones.  Why is that?  Well, they want to take advantage of the best of both worlds the best that they can.  But, at the same time, not everyone wants to jeopardize their old ways of life.  It’s what they know.  It’s their comfort zones.  It’s how they have evolved to believe they should live.  I’ve had countless political arguments with sheltered people and friends who felt that invading countries and transforming their governments was the correct solution to everything, but is it really?  Is our government system really the answer?  Is it our business to decide that for anyone but ourselves?  How do we know that we’re right?  I’ve seen first hand how these “less fortunate” people actually believe we’re the unfortunate ones, leading stressful lives and answering to people we hardly know, not understanding anymore what living is or how to appreciate life.  But it’s not just how their systems aren’t broken but how we try to fix them and break them to pieces.  How we strip people of culture.  Perhaps the worst offender of such things is religious cleansing.  I am absolutely opposed to mission trips and anything that operates in another community by the “light of God”.  Can’t people do good things for the sake of life, living, and kindness?  Why is religion attached to any good notion when religion is in fact the cause of so much evil?  So much war?  I see people going to Africa every year on “mission trips”, and all I can think is I hope you feel good about yourself when you shove Bibles down these poor peoples’ throats and rob them of any cultural identity they used to have.  Why not teach them how to read and write?  So they can buy books and learn the newest herbal medicinal discoveries or how to fix their water issues naturally and without the use of energy and pumps?  This religious debacle leads me to my last reason…

4. HELP YOURSELF BEFORE YOU HELP OTHERS.
Even airlines tell you this before your plane leaves the runway.  While we are so transfixed with being the heroes to people in communities that will never remember our names once we have parted, why don’t we take a look at our own country?  And I don’t mean just soup kitchens and giving handouts to homeless people who continue to drink away their handouts.  I mean the thing that I’m most passionate about: poverty on the reservations.  It’s not because I’m biased because my grandfather is Indian and it’s my focus of work.  It’s because I strongly believe America is responsible for the situation it’s created.  You can’t invade a territory, take over completely from peoples who you don’t even acknowledge as people, set up a system familiar only to the invaders and only at the advantage of said invaders, and then expect the natives to thrive.  That’s just it; they weren’t expected to thrive.  They weren’t considered people, they were murdered without consequences, and they weren’t even accounted for on the census rolls until tribal counts were created.  By that time, most of the less powerful tribes were wiped out or assimilated to a different culture anyway.  The territorial borders kept pushing back, tribes were hit with European clothes, weapons, alcohol, and Bibles, all in an effort to strip them of their identity if not kill them off altogether.  The answer to this problem, when peaceful terms were supposedly going to be met, was to shove these peoples onto a hodge-podge of lousy land parcels called “reservations”.  That was no solution, but everyone seemed to “roll with it” until the Dawes Act sparked up in the late 1800s and unconstitutionally revoked the rights of thousands of American people – American Indian people.  What efforts have been made since to right these wrongs?  A similar wronging was in the African-American slave industry around the same time.  That dispute divided our whole nation until it was resolved and, although we still have racial issues, the States made an enormous effort to right its wrongs.  Can you say that about the native people to whom this land really belonged?  Whose voices aren’t being heard despite their protests?  As an example, Gilmour Academy near my university (and where several of my friends went) sends students annually to Honduras on a mission trip.  Ignoring the fact that it’s a mission, can we ask ourselves why these people are spending thousands of dollars for the glory of assisting (handing fish) to people in a remote, foreign village that will likely stay broken?  One that maybe wasn’t all that “broken” to begin with?  One that actually used to be full of native peoples that were conquered by the Spaniards?  But we’re continuing to perpetuate that wrong as a right by influencing our western ways on the rural populations?  And if the reason of choosing that location is solely based on the poverty level in Honduras being under 50%, have we stopped to consider that a few of the largest Indian reservations in the US with a majority of the native population is in fact exceeding that level of poverty?  Within our own borders?  Okay, so South Dakota or the desert in Utah maybe isn’t as “cool” as Honduras to visit…but is it a volunteer trip or a vacation?  Spend your money wisely.  Don’t blow $1000 on airfare to fix a problem that doesn’t concern you.  10 students’ airfare to go to Honduras could send multitudes more in a workforce to address the issues in our own country.

So there you have it, my rant for the day: how overseas volunteer projects don’t teach a village anything life-changing, how they have a tendency to be short-lived, how they aim to fix things that may not be considered a problem internally, and how they take our attention away from our own neighbors suffering.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who think differently but, until I see some serious changes within our own country and in these overseas projects to be more economical and sustainable, I see no reason to advocate my opinions in anyone else’s favor.